What Makes the BIG EAST Special

The new BIG EAST is dominated by Catholic schools. Read how this came to be.

Historically, the old BIG EAST is considered to be one of the most dominant and competitive men’s college basketball conferences in the history of the sport. College hoops fans reminisce about the days when Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing battled rivals Syracuse, Villanova, and Connecticut.

The BIG EAST of today isn’t too shabby either. The BIG EAST had six teams in the 2018 tournament, leading the way with two No. 1 seeds: Villanova and Xavier. Villanova won the whole thing in 2016 and 2018.

Truth be told, even though many don’t like the ‘new’ BIG EAST anywhere near as much as the ‘old’ BIG EAST, both renditions of the conference share a common theme outside of their name: they both consisted of mostly Catholic colleges and universities.

“We all share a common worldview, and that includes first of all being Catholic institutions who believe that athletics is an important part of the development of our students,” said Dominican Father Brian Shanley, president of Providence College, regarding the Catholic seven — the seven Catholic universities that left the old BIG EAST conference to form the new one.

“All of us really see that participation in athletics can be an important way for young people to develop into the kinds of human beings that we hope they will be,” Fr. Shanley explained.

The history of the BIG EAST’s Catholic roots

The BIG EAST’s Catholic roots date back to 1979. The conference was started by seven universities, five of them Catholic. Holy Cross in Massachusetts was also invited to join the conference that year but declined. The following year Villanova joined, adding an additional Catholic university to the conference.

In the conference’s first six years, it claimed two national championships. One by Georgetown in 1984 and one by Villanova in 1985. In total, the ‘old’ BIG EAST conference won seven national championships before the Catholic Seven left to form the ‘new’ BIG EAST.

Since 2013, when the ‘new’ BIG EAST was formed, one of its current members, Villanova, has already won an additional national championship. In fact, from 1980–2013, only the Atlantic Coast Conference has won more.

While basketball prominence may not seem relevant to the conference or any of the universities’ Catholic identity to some, Fr. Shanley explains that it is.

“Basketball’s prominence has been a way for Providence College to get its mission and its name out there,” he said shortly after the new BIG EAST was created.

“That’s one of the reasons why we think playing in this league is going to be important for us. All of us feel this league will be a way of hopefully attracting students to our mission.”

What about football?

Currently, the BIG EAST is made up of strong college basketball schools that don’t have a Division I FBS football team. Prior to its realignment, the conference had some success with football after it added some more football-focused schools such as the University of Miami, which won a National Championship in football as a member of the BIG EAST in 2001.

However, back in 1979, the conference was specifically designed to not include any major college football program.

The BIG EAST Conference initially began as a basketball conglomerate — a league that placed basketball above football, which was already starting to dominate college sports even back then. This is actually something the conference did again when the Catholic Seven left the old BIG EAST to form the new one — even at a time when college football truly dominated financially in college sports.

Run by different orders, within one Catholic family

While the schools are very similar in many ways, there is also diversity within their one Catholic tradition. Four of the colleges in the current BIG EAST were founded and are run by the Jesuit order, while others are run by different religious orders or the Diocese of Newark.

Breakdown of affiliation within the Catholic Church:




St. John


Providence College



Diocese of Newark (New Jersey):

Seton Hall

Not religiously affiliated:


Although these schools are run by different religious orders, their Catholic values are consistent — something that can be seen in the consistency of their mission statements (linked above).

“You see it in the way these student-athletes conduct themselves,” Father Hagan told OSV. “There’s a certain energy and synergy that happens in a community where athletes know that the person on the other side of them is willing to sacrifice some of their own glory for the betterment of the team.”

So if you have no idea who to pick in your bracket this year, why not pick teams from the BIG EAST? God may not be more on their side than any other team, but they have the values that come with being Catholic, and that might be worth picking.

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